Willis, troubadour of the TUC, bows to popular demand: The clown prince of the union movement retires after nine years at the helm. Barrie Clement reports

HAVING endlessly regaled union leaders with rhyming couplets and riddles, Norman Willis finally told them what they wanted to hear yesterday.

This year's annual congress in Brighton is to be his last as general secretary of the TUC. At the age of 60, the tubby troubadour with a low centre of gravitas has finally announced his early retirement after nine years.

'Sometimes it has felt as if I've been nine days in the job, sometimes it seems like 90 years,' he said yesterday. His detractors would concur with the latter.

Mr Willis was seen by many as the comedian on the Titanic. He presided over a period when union membership declined from around 10 million to 6 million. The movement cried out for an articulate champion rather than an affable comic.

Mr Willis has found that there are no prizes for being a nice guy or for being a 'character'. He showed character in another sense when he went to South Wales in the middle of the coal strike and denounced picket-line violence. A noose was lowered over his head from the rafters by militant pitmen.

He was made general secretary during the pits strike and has lived through a series of disasters for the movement, including the Wapping dispute and GCHQ.

Mr Willis, married with two children, was born in Middlesex in 1933, the son of a barber and a laundry worker. He trained as an economist at Ruskin and later Oriel College in Oxford before becoming a speech writer to Frank Cousins and then Jack Jones at the Transport and General Workers' Union.

He became assistant general secretary at the TUC in 1974 - the only 'outsider' to move into Congress House at such a senior level.

The abiding memory will be of Norman 'Ramblo' Willis: the only time he remotely approached 'subject, verb and object' in his pronouncements was when he was telling a joke.

He will also be remembered for his public bar sense of fun. In a particularly gauche performance he once serenaded bemused Soviet officials to a rendering of 'Maybe it's because I'm Ukrainian' in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster.

Trade unionists were seriously concerned that he might delay his retirement after the successful campaign to fan public anger over the pit closures. One union leader, who was preparing to 'have a word in his shell-like' over the possibility of retiring gracefully, said that his performance during the Government's pit fiasco was a one- off. 'Where was he when Britain came out of the ERM, for instance?' Radio and television producers need soundbites, not the desultory nibbles of Mr Willis.

He decided to reveal his plans yesterday following the announcement last week that members of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union had voted to affiliate to the TUC. That was a 'vote of confidence' and a show of unity for which he had worked, he said.

In a statement, Mr Willis said that he was making his decision known now so that nominations could be received to elect his successor at the annual congress in September. Under the traditional 'Buggin's Turn' principle, his most likely successor in the pounds 50,000-a-year job is John Monks, Mr Willis's deputy.

Mr Monks is chalk to Mr Willis's cheese. A graduate of Nottingham University with a love for rugby league, Mr Monks is able to speak on equal terms with ministers, senior civil servants and business leaders. Despite the deep freeze imposed on the TUC by the Government, Mr Monks enjoys ministerial contacts.

Senior union leaders have mentioned such names as Brenda Dean, the former print union leader; John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB general union; and Jack Dromey, national TGWU officer, as potential successors.

But the present deputy TUC leader fits the bill as far as most are concerned. He is intelligent and articulate, a bureaucrat with a safe pair of hands and not over-colourful.

The new No 1 at Congress House will have a tough time ahead. In the short term there is the Employment Bill that will give workers the right to join the union of their choice. That severely undermines the TUC's role as an adjudicator in membership disputes under the so- called 'Bridlington' procedure.

Then there is the creation of new mega-unions such as the 1.4 million-strong Unison, which call into question the need for a trade union centre. When those problems have been tackled, he or she will have to address themselves to the decline of union membership.

(Photograph omitted)

News
In this photo illustration, the Twitter logo and hashtag '#Ring!' is displayed on a mobile device as the company announced its initial public offering and debut on the New York Stock Exchange on November 7, 2013 in London, England. Twitter went public on the NYSE opening at USD 26 per share, valuing the company's worth at an estimated USD 18 billion.
news

Arts and Entertainment
Australia singer Iggy Azalea has been attacked by Eminem in a new rap
music

Singer was ordered not to 'blow her rape whistle' in song 'Vegas'

News
news

Arts and Entertainment
'Africa' will be Angelina Jolie's fifth film as a director
film

Mr and Mrs Smith star admits she's 'never been comfortable on-screen'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
Myleene Klass
people
Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
News
Ashton Kutcher speaking at Human Rights Watch's Voices For Justice dinner in November 2013
people'What is so wrong about digging up dirt on shady journalist?'
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch as John Watson and Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock
tv

Co-creator Mark Gatiss dropped some very intriguing hints ahead of the BBC drama's return next year

Life and Style
Jane Merrick rides on a Micro Scooter through St James's Park, on November 18, 2014 in London, United Kingdom.
life
Arts and Entertainment
Babysitter Katie and Paul have terse words in the park
tvReview: The strength of the writing keeps viewers glued to their seats
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was driven to a miserable death. His story is to be told in film
Sport
Qatar has very little football history

It is a crazy place to play in summer, writes Paul Scholes

Life and Style
Make-up artists prepare contestants for last year’s Miss World, held in Budapest
fashion
News
Actor Dave Prowse in his role as the Green Cross Code Man in 1982
peopleStar Wars actor to reprise his other role - as the Green Cross Man
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Brit Marling as PR woman Liz Garvey
tv

It was all about Liz’s cocaine-fuelled brainwave, 'The Metwork'

Voices
The Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad and Russia’s deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov flank Fifa president Sepp Blatter
voices
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Argyll Scott International: Senior Perl Developer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits : Argyll Scott International: Senior Perl...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property / Planning - Bristol

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM - A high qu...

Recruitment Genius: Solar Field Sales Executive

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Content / Copy Writer

£18000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has bec...

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines